Earning their stripes
LSU survives war with Florida to protect No. 1 ranking
Posted: Sunday October 7, 2007 3:15AM; Updated: Monday October 8, 2007 10:49AM
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU's Keiland Williams had just scored a touchdown to cut Florida's lead to 17-14 early in the third quarter here Saturday night when the Tiger Stadium public address announcer delivered music to the ears of the venue's 92,910 spectators.
"Ladies and gentlemen, a final score. ... Stanford 24, Southern California 23."
What started as a stunned shriek slowly built into an extended roar, and then a series of chants. L-S-U, L-S-U. The Tigers players heard it, too. Many of them started jumping up and down on the sideline, and the stadium proceeded to grow that much louder. Tiger Bait. Tiger Bait.
"We try not to feed into the debate about who should be No. 1," said LSU defensive lineman Kirston Pittman. "But that [score] was hard to ignore. I know it got us excited."
Both fan and player alike understood the opportunity at hand. Stop the Gators. Score another touchdown. Win the game and take over undisputed status as rulers of the college football world.
But that would simply be too easy.
On the most eventful night yet of this wildly turbulent 2007 season -- a night when a 41-point underdog would knock off the most dominant program of the decade, a night when noted football juggernaut Cincinnati nearly took possession of the nation's longest winning streak, a night when Notre Dame won, for crying out loud -- it was only fitting LSU would have to endure a seemingly never-ending Gator gauntlet to finally achieve its long-awaited status as the nation's consensus No. 1 team.
First, the Gators would go back up by 10 points just five plays after that momentous stadium announcement. LSU would require two quarterbacks, four tailbacks and a staggering five fourth-down conversions to stage their comeback. Not until the Tigers scored the go-ahead touchdown with just 1:09 remaining and survived one of those hold-your-breath Hail Mary attempts on the final play did they finally prevail, 28-24, in the most intense regular-season game this reporter has ever witnessed.
"With all the opportunities not to come back, this team kept finding a way," said a proud and undeniably ballsy Les Miles. "I enjoyed the character of this football team. Down the road, that is what will sustain this team."
Miles addressed reporters afterward in the same room the coaches address their troops before they takes the field. Scrawled on a dry-erase board in the far corner were someone's simple pregame directive: "Four quarters of mean, nasty tough-ass football."
The Tigers delivered just that. They had no choice.
Fresh off a home loss to 20-point underdog Auburn and a week of controversy surrounding the arrest of no-longer-senior-captain Tony Joiner, Florida walked into the most intimidating venue imaginable -- "It's never been that loud in Tiger Stadium," LSU receiver Brandon LaFell said afterward -- and promptly jumped to a 17-7 halftime lead. The Gators' offense, completely stifled by Auburn a week earlier, started the game in a five-wide set and, much like in last January's BCS title game, proceeded to change up personnel and formations nearly every single play.
A week after receiving just three handoffs the entire game, Florida tailback Kehstan Moore ran 12 times for 79 yards and caught a pass from Tim Tebow for the Gators' first touchdown. With the Gators' running game working, the field opened up often in the first half for Tebow, who completed 7 of his first 13 passes and eluded noted LSU pass-rushers Jackson and Glenn Dorsey on his way to 13 first-half runs. On a third-and-goal from the Tigers' 9-yard line late in the half, he dropped back to pass, tucked and took off running for the touchdown that first put Florida up 10.
"We were prepared to see an almost totally different offense. They fooled us," said Tigers defensive end Tyson Jackson. "They started running the ball up the middle and gashing us when we had linebackers out covering receivers."
If you thought they looked fooled in the first half, you should have seen them on Florida's fifth offensive play of the second half, a first-and-10 from LSU's 37. A communication breakdown in the secondary allowed Gators tight end Cornelius Ingram to race wide open right down the middle of the field to complete Florida's third straight touchdown drive and go up 24-14 midway through the third quarter. When LSU's next two possessions ended with a punt and a missed field goal, more than a few pollsters around the country undoubtedly went ahead and wrote "Cal" on the top line of their new ballot.